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Mindfulness 2 – Metta Institute

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 07/31/2007
Location: Metta Institute
In Topics: Buddhist Sutras, Meditation and Mindfulness, Pali Canon

Second talk on Mindfulness given to Metta Institute.

Mindfulness 2 – Metta Institute

Second talk on Mindfulness given to Metta Institute.

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | July 31, 2007

Abridged and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum


I would like to review a couple of things that I said yesterday about the process of mindfulness. I was saying that it's a little shocking, maybe – when you sit down and you have nothing to do and just pay attention – how much goes on, and how much dumb stuff goes on. Even some disturbing stuff goes on, and you think, "Where did all that stuff come from?" I was saying that a lot of that was there anyway, but that the mind is muffled most of the time – distracted most of the time – at almost a subliminal level, and so you don't notice what's going on.

The point of settling ourselves is to allow the stuff that is there to be noticed. Thich Nhat Hanh has the great image of a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice that is all stirred up with pulp. And you set it down and don't do anything with it, and then it settles. When it settles, you can see the orange juice is clear.

So that is what this process is. It's not so much to produce something that isn't already there, as it is to become aware of the pattern of what is there. And the more you are aware of what's there – what was there all along – the more you discern the patterns that cause it to arise.

I was using the metaphor of the mind as an ocean. The surface waves and ripples, which are subject to whatever wind is blowing, are like emotions – constantly agitated. A little deeper, the currents go by without so much agitation. And then at the bottom of the ocean, it is just clear and deep, without much movement. All of it is our consciousness. Most of the time we are only aware of the ripples and the agitation, and we only see so far. When the mind settles, we see a little more deeply. We see the deeper patterns that are controlling those ripples that are on the surface. If we become still more quiet, we can see the universal patterns of mind that are true for all of us – not just my individual situation and my set of circumstances, but the deep patterns of mind that are driving my particular set of circumstances. When I see them in myself, I realize that everyone is driven by these deep patterns, whatever the specificity of someone's karma, issues, or history may be.

The mindfulness sutras are both called the Satipatthana Sutta. Sati means mindfulness, and patthana is usually translated as "foundation." But it is an interesting word – and I am going into this because I think it's really important – that suggests a very concrete place, almost like a physical location, a ground upon which something is established. So Thich Nhat Hanh translates the word as "The Four Establishments of Mindfulness."

This is interesting in itself. The Buddha and the original people who practiced this saw mindfulness as a concrete, almost physical location in the mind and in the heart, a place of craft where you could do some work. Roll up your sleeves and do some work. We have no concept in our cultural life of the craft of working with the mind and heart as if it were actually "stuff." But that is exactly the sense of it. To work with the mind and heart is something very practical, very grounded, very real. It is touchable, concrete, and located in a place.

The idea, I think, is that there could be an infinite number of places for this work. But for purposes of our being able to be effective in speaking about it, working with it, let's designate four places – four different stations, so to speak – where we can work with this very concrete experience we are having that we call our life. So there are four locations, four benches, in the workshop. Four stations where we can work, where we can develop the craft of living with our thought and emotion.

It might also be worth noting that what we call thoughts, what we call emotions, what we call consciousness, what we call perceptions, are not so much distinguished from one another. To be sure, distinctions are made, but the distinctions are really not so important. In our culture a huge distinction is made between emotions and thoughts. Huge distinction. We are starting to soften that distinction, and it is really good that we are; but I think we are all deeply embedded in our conditioning to believe that thought can figure things out. Thought is like the boss, a mastermind, who can look at the world and figure it out. So if we are sitting on our cushions dismayed at our lack of "progress," that's because we are convinced that our thought should be able to get control of the situation and work it out. We go to school; we learn it; we've got it down; we ought to be able to master this. Emotion, on the other hand, is messy, irrational. We should have control of our emotions.

So in our way of thinking there is a firewall between emotions and thoughts. But in Buddhist psychology, there is no such firewall. Basically the idea is that there is a field of awareness, and within that field of awareness there is a flux of stuff coming every moment. The point of the categorization of all the stuff in Buddhist psychology is not so much to investigate as it is to heal. So everything is looked at from the perspective of healing. But it is important that it is just a bunch of stuff arising in the field of awareness. Every moment is an event made up of numerous aspects, and it doesn't matter so much what we call them. Thoughts, physical sensations, perceptions, emotions, feelings – there is an acknowledgement that in every moment there is always all of that stuff arising. The sum total of it goes into making up a moment of experience, a moment of consciousness. They are all at every moment mental, emotional concomitants of consciousness.

This means that in the Buddhist way of looking at the mind, at the heart, there is a willingness to accept and examine the whole range. In other words, we are not only saying, "This is the good stuff." To know the field is to assume a variety in it, and to be open to it, rather than saying, "This is me. I like this. This is not me. I don't like that. I refuse. That can't be there. No, no, no, no." This is the usual way that we look at our mind, with a whole lot of sense of the way it should be. We have an idea of who we are, and within that there are certain kinds of things that can be in our heart – things that are in-bounds and things that are out-of-bounds. And so if something out-of-bounds should chance to appear, we either refuse to notice it, or if we do see it, we condemn ourselves for it, thereby conditioning ourselves not to see it if it would appear again. Yesterday I tried to draw the distinction between mindfulness and self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is a very narrow band within this whole area of experience arising in every moment. Self-consciousness is a very narrow band that selects and accepts and desires certain kinds of experience and basically wants to eliminate and not see other kinds of experience.

Mindfulness, then, by comparison with our usual way of being with experience, is expansive and sometimes even shocking or disturbing at first. But then it is liberating, because you realize, "Oh, that's there, too, in me, in here, just like other people. Nothing in anyone is foreign to me. So I don't need to be shocked, amazed, or condemning of other people, because it has also been seen in here as well." So it is a very wide and accepting field by its nature, by its definition.

There are four workshop benches of mindfulness. There are many different translations and senses of these, both in Asian commentary and now in English, where various words are used to translate them, depending on the interpretation. But I will use the words mindfulness of the body; mindfulness of feelings; mindfulness of consciousness; mindfulness of dharmas.

Mindfulness of the body is most simply appreciated by being aware of the nature of the body. To be aware and to feel and to sense that the body is the earth. To be aware and to feel and sense that the body is not really a thing as much as an ongoing flow or process of change on a moment-by-moment basis. To be aware that it is impermanent, and so on. If one were truly aware with full intention, to the fullest extent of just that, it would be enough to keep you going for many lifetimes. Deep knowledge and wisdom. Just to know what it means to be an embodied human being. So that's the first one.

The second one is mindfulness of feelings. Although the word "feelings" is often used to translate the Pali word vedanā, it doesn't mean emotion. It means something a little bit more basic than emotion. To give you an idea of it, the word means not only feelings, but a gut reaction, an almost subliminal gut reaction that we have on a moment-to-moment basis to anything that comes into the field of awareness. The same word is also used to denote bodily sensations. So bodily sensation is a vedanā: cold, heat, pain, discomfort, pleasure. Physical sensations.

Mindfulness is taught in many, many ways. One way is to focus in particular on the sensations that arise in the body while you are sitting, or at any time, but especially while you are sitting. So to pay attention to cold, heat, pain, itchiness, there is a technique that is often used of scanning the body. Starting at the top of the head, see if you feel any sensations at the top of the head, the forehead, the cheeks, the jaw, the shoulders, and so on, going all the way down through the body and coming back up again. Keep constantly looking with the eye of awareness for sensations in the body, so that you can become aware of vedanā, of these gut reactions, these subliminal things that are always going on.

Now I want to repeat that the point here is simply to be aware, not to analyze. So when you notice that you are analyzing, you label it. You know it's going on, and you are clear that that is not the job, not the task.

So that gets us into the third foundation of mindfulness, which is mindfulness of mental or emotional states. It is on this level that we are talking about what we usually call emotion. Here is where we are labeling a state of mind – unhappy, dismayed, confused – with whatever labels we want to use to characterize a thought or state of mind in a particular moment. I will read you what it actually says in the sutra about this one. This is contemplation of consciousness.

Here, bikkhus, a bikkhu knows the consciousness with lust as consciousness with lust; consciousness without lust as consciousness without lust; the consciousness with hate as consciousness with hate; the consciousness without hate as consciousness without hate; the consciousness with delusion as consciousness with delusion; the consciousness without delusion as consciousness without delusion.

The matter-of-fact dispassion of this is really remarkable, when you figure that this is the Buddha talking to monastics, who, of course, are not supposed to be going around having minds full of hate and lust. And yet, for the purposes of mindfulness, none of that is referenced. If there is lust, we are aware that the consciousness is overcome with lust. If there is no lust, we are aware of that. It doesn't say that one is better than the other. It just says, "When it's this way, know that it is this way. When it is that way, know that it is that way."

The idea is that whatever state it is, you would be aware of it and know it for what it is, and to be clear about that. Not justifying, not rationalizing, not evaluating, not denying – but just "This is what it is." As long as I am honestly aware of what it is, that's my job. It is all I have to do. Just be aware.

Thus the practitioner dwells contemplating the consciousness in the consciousness internally or contemplating the consciousness externally.

This formula is repeated throughout the sutra over and over again, because we want to be careful to practice awareness constantly. This would be the idea, that we would be practicing awareness all the time. In meditation would be, maybe, the most intense time for practicing awareness, because we would have suspended all other tasks. Ideally we would be practicing awareness all the time; but the danger would be that we would become so inwardly focused that we would lose track of being in this world.

So we are aware of these things arising within us, and we are aware of things arising within others all around us, so that it is not a matter of internal focus only. We are aware internally and we are aware externally. Much of what we would be aware of, for example, is sound, which is not exactly internal. Or visual perception. Our reaction to external stimulation. So it is both internal and external awareness. And we are aware of how that arises. What causes it to arise? And when it passes away, what causes it to pass away? Be aware of that.

Then it says – and these are all formulaic, repeated throughout the sutra – "doing this not attached to anything." No craving and no confused views. Not clinging to anything in the world. So, in other words, just be aware, without preference, without clinging. And, of course, when there is preference and clinging, be aware of that. Preference, clinging, avoidance – you can be aware of that. There is already a measure of healing, and a measure of salvation, so to speak, just in the awareness. And that's how the practitioner dwells, contemplating the consciousness in the consciousness.

So in the sutra we have lust, hate, and delusion. We would label or understand the state of the mind that we have. That's the job. Just to understand it. Just to see it, and every time we label and are aware, there is a kind of letting go in the very awareness. That's the thing. When you are aware of something in this way, there is a letting go in the awareness – a willingness to just be there with whatever it is. To know what it is and be there for the next moment – whatever is there.

The last of the foundations is called the foundation of dharmas. This is the one that is the awareness of the deepest of human patterns, the deepest patterns of mind, which I would say are not only human, but the deepest patterns within being itself. What does this amount to? When it comes to discerning the deepest healing truths at the most fundamental level of our lives, the first thing is that we are aware of our confusion. We're aware of our distraction. We're aware of our resistance. That is how we enter the deepest level of our hearts, of our minds. So we are thinking that this resistance shouldn't be there. We're frustrated because we're trying to make the resistance go away. We're having all sorts of self-judgment and self-struggle with these distractions and resistances. But the resistances are the foundation of truth. That is how we are going to get to where we need to get to, by uncovering and being aware of all the ways in which we are running away.

So we need all that. When you are confused about your confusion, that's difficult. But you can just resist and be aware of it; and just be confused and know it; be angry and know you're angry. Whatever it may be, whatever way is your way of holding yourself back from embracing this experience, we need to know that and allow that to be there fully. That is the gateway into the truth.

Whatever your confusions, whatever mess you're in, that's your treasure. You are exactly in the mess you need to be in, whatever it is. It is only when you appreciate that mess that it will lead you directly to the truth that you need to see – that this is your gateway into the truth. Everybody has a unique mess, right? Your mess is not the same as mine.

I find this remarkable that the Buddha talks about anger, laziness, lust, desire, fear, confusion – all the categories of stuff that that keep us away. Now we're at the deepest level. Now we are going to get to the most healing of all truths. These are our treasures, in whatever combinations are unique to us. This is one of the secrets and joys of meditation practice: When you can enjoy and appreciate your attachment, your anger, your confusion, your stupidity, and say, "Wow! That is amazing!" I have been doing this practice for forty years, and I still say that. "Wow! That's amazing! I really appreciate that. I'm really impressed with that." When you can look at it that way, it is really kind of fun and beautiful. In other words, what a freedom, just to be aware of it. How smart is it to have somebody there who is giving you a hard time – whether it is yourself or somebody outside of you? Someone who says, "That shouldn't be happening. That's no good. That's not what I want right now." And yet there it is. How far does that get you? Nowhere. So the only real way is to let yourself be aware. And then it changes the barred door into a door that can be opened.

So that is how it begins – the doorway to truth. And then, if you are willing to go through that door, the next thing that happens is that you begin to become aware of the whole process of how we make confusion in our lives. You begin to set aside the usual story about me and my tale of woe and all my problems; and you begin to appreciate what is happening and how it happens, and the process by which things get processed and understood, and get confused. And you begin to see how it is you make trouble for yourself, and how others make trouble for themselves and for you. You begin to take an interest in that.

And then once that happens, the next thing that happens is there arises in you, quite by surprise, all these wonderful experiences – like energy and interest in life. Imagine what it would be like to take interest in the human condition, rather than to be dismayed by it and constantly in a state of semi-despair. Imagine what it would be like to take a zestful interest: "Look at that! Wow, how did that happen? Yes, it is sad, but how did that happen? What is it? Let me understand it more deeply." And that becomes spontaneously the way you feel about life, and then you live with more awareness of and focus on what is being lived.

"Because of this it has been said that this is the only way, oh practitioners. This is the only way for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation; for the disappearance of pain and grief; for reaching the noble path; for the realization of nirvana and complete peace – namely, the four foundations of mindfulness." This is what the Buddha said, and the monastics were glad in their hearts and welcomed the words of the Blessed One.

In practice, what is important is simplicity and repetition. It doesn't help to make it complicated. In a way, everything that I said today is a little bit more complicated than it needs to be. It's as if what you are going to do here is extremely simple and straightforward. What it amounts to is simply to practice the sutra by being with the body, by being with the breath, and using the body and the breath to become as intimate with your experience – whatever it may be – as it is possible for you to be. This is what you want to do – to be close to what happens. Close to your life, as close as you can be. As intimate as you can be and as warm-hearted as you can be with whatever there is. There is nothing that can happen that you can't be intimate with and warm-hearted with, even if it is something that is definitely a bad state of mind, or painful. You don't need to be afraid to be close to it and intimate with it, because the incredible wisdom of the body and of the breath will hold you through it and be intimate with it. You can't push it away anyway, right? By being in that state of mind, you cannot get rid of it anyway. By holding it at arm's length, you only make it painful.

So just allow yourself to be aware and intimate with whatever arises. Please, please don't worry about getting this right, or wanting some pre-ordained result to arise from this. It's not about that. Trust the process. Just keep coming back to yourself. That's what you're doing, really. You are coming back to yourself over and over again. When your mind is taking you away, just bring yourself back. "Please come back. I'm here. Please come back." Like a child who wants to go all over the place, "Please come back. I love you. It will be okay. Come back." Just with that process of reaching out your hand and getting yourself to come back. In one half hour of meditation, ten times, twenty times, fifty times, a thousand times – "Come back. Come back. Come back. It's warm here. It is going to be okay."

Just whatever it is, be aware, be mindful. It's very simple if you just do it, even if it isn't always pleasant. It's always warm, it's always real. So just come back. Don't be fooled by anything. So that's the practice of mindfulness. Call to yourself and answer yourself, "I am here. I am here. Don't be fooled. Don't run away. Okay, okay, I'll come back."

That's all that you have to do. It is really simple. It's profound to know what the process is and what the possibilities are.

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